The Alteration of Time

Posted in History on March 26, 2023 by telescoper

It’s that time of year again. The clocks went forward at 1am on 26th March, when I was in bed.  I  scheduled this post for exactly that time to see what would happen. By the time I get up tomorrow morning I’ll be on Irish Summer Time and it will probably take me most of the day to work out how to change the clock on my oven again. Still, at least there will be a slight reduction in the amount of confusion over the timing of next week’s batch of telecons.

Among the many sensible decisions made recently by the European Parliament was to approve a directive that will abolish `Daylight Saving Time’. I’ve long felt that the annual ritual of putting the clocks forward in the Spring and back again in the Autumn was a waste of time effort, so I’ll be glad when this silly practice is terminated. It would be better in my view to stick with a single Mean Time throughout the year. This was supposed to happen in 2021 but has been delayed and I gather there are no plans to make it happen in the foreseeable future.

The  splendid poster above is from 1916, when British Summer Time was introduced. You might be surprised to learn that the practice of changing clocks backwards and forwards is only about a hundred years old, in the United Kingdom. To be honest I’m also surprised that the practice persists to this day, as I can’t see any real advantage in it. Any institution or organization that really wants to change its working hours in summer can easily do so, but the world of work is far more flexible nowadays than it was a hundred years ago and I think few would feel the need.

Anyway, while I am on about Mean Time, here is a another poster from 1916.

Until October 1916, clocks in Ireland were set to Dublin Mean Time, as defined at Dunsink Observatory, rather than Mean Time as defined at Greenwich. The adoption of GMT in Ireland was driven largely by the fact that the British authorities found that the time difference between Dublin and London had confused telegraphic communications during the Easter Rising earlier in 1916. Its imposition was therefore, at least in part, intended to bring Ireland under closer control of Britain. Needless to say, this did not go down well with Irish nationalists.

Ireland had not moved to Summer Time with Britain in May 1916 because of the Easter Rising. Dublin Mean Time was 25 minutes 21 seconds behind GMT but the change was introduced at the same time as BST ended in the UK, hence the alteration by one hour minus 25 minutes 21 seconds, i.e. 34 minutes and 39 seconds as in the poster.

R.I.P. Gordon Moore (1929-2023)

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on March 25, 2023 by telescoper
Gordon Moore, photographed in 1981. Picture credit: Intel corporation.

I was saddened this morning to see news of the passing of scientist, inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist Gordon Moore at the age of 94. Moore was a co-founder in 1968 of semiconductor company Intel, which has an enormous manufacturing facility at Leixlip, just a few miles from Maynooth, which employs almost 5000 people and contributes hugely to the local economy.

Gordon Moore also gave his name to Moore’s Law which relates to the rate of growth of transistors in integrated circuits and hence to the growth of computing power that gave rise to microprocessors, personal computers and supercomputers. I had reason to refer to Moore’s Law on this blog just a couple of days ago.

Moore made a huge personal fortune from business, and in 2000, he and his wife Betty established the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, with a gift worth about $5 billion. Through the Foundation, and as individuals, they have funded projects in science in fields as diverse as materials science and physics to genomics, data science and astronomy, in particular they have funded including the Thirty Metre Telescope project.

I have personal reasons for being grateful for the generosity of Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. When we were try to set up the Open Journal of Astrophysics some years ago we were awarded a small grant from them. It wasn’t a large amount of money but it was essential in allowing us to develop the idea into the working journal it is today. The Open Journal of Astrophysics is just one of many projects that would not have been possible without philanthropic giving of this sort.

Rest in peace Gordon Moore (1929-2023)

Postgraduate Workers

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on March 24, 2023 by telescoper

It was good to see quite a lot of coverage in the Irish Media of yesterday’s demonstration by the Postgraduate Workers Organization (PWO) at the Dáil Éireann; see, for example, here, here and here). The PWO is campaigning for postgraduate students to be paid on a living wage and with full workers’ rights under employment law, such as sick leave entitlement and maximum working hours. You can read more about their demands in the Fair Researcher Agreement here. I endorse this campaign wholeheartedly.

Postgraduate students in Ireland are treated abysmally by the current arrangements, and their situation is rapidly getting worse. Stipend levels (the best of which are currently around €18,500) have not been adjusted for inflation for many years and the recent surge in prices has made this even worse. The living wage is around €26,000 in Ireland, and the stipend should be increased to at least that level. I would argue, and indeed have argued, that even this level would be inadequate.

University employees such as myself have recently been awarded a significant pay rise. It is patently unfair that postgraduate students, who make an essential contribution to the teaching as well as research in all academic departments, should be left behind.

The root cause of  this is the chronic underfunding of Ireland’s universities. While lecturers’ pay is determined by central agreements, it is not necessarily the case that colleges and universities are given enough funding to cover the increase. The result is that third-level institutions can’t employ enough full-time academic staff to teach the ever-increasing number of students, and instead have to rely on poorly-paid casual labour, much of which supplied by postgraduates. While I do think that PhD students benefit from having a bit of teaching experience during the course of their programme, the current situation where the students can’t afford to live unless they take on a large amount of additional work.

While the fundamental cause is clear, and lies at a Government level, it seems to me that the situation of PhD students in Ireland is exacerbated by rampant managerialism. Take my own institution, Maynooth University, for example. The ratio of undergraduate students to academic staff in Maynooth is the highest in Ireland at 28:1. Instead of investing in more academic staff, however, the University has recently gone on a spending spree to recruit more members of senior management. I put in a Freedom of Information request in recently, which revealed that Maynooth has spent around €250K since September 2020 on recruitment consultancies alone in connection with 10 senior management positions. That’s not counting the recurrent salary costs of the new staff. The addition of yet more people to an already top-heavy management structure is impossible to justify, especially when postgraduate students are struggling to make ends meet.

There seems to be much less enthusiasm here for filling academic staff positions, or even advertising them, as I have learnt recently by personal experience. Universities are communities whose primary aims are teaching and research. In my opinion postgraduate workers, collectively, contribute far more to those communities than do the President, Vice-Presidents and sundry Directors. I just wish more people recognized that. If postgraduate workers decided to withdraw their labour, the University would cease to function.

Progress in Computational Cosmology

Posted in Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on March 23, 2023 by telescoper

We’ve had a visitor in Maynooth for the last couple of days in the form of Mathieu Schaller, who works at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Mathieu was here to work with John Regan’s group on cosmological simulations, but also gave a Theoretical Physics seminar yesterday to a general audience including some of our undergraduate students.

Mathieu’s talk was about a project called FLAMINGO – what is it with cosmologists and acronyms? – which is a suite of simulations designed to be virtual “twins” of the next generation of surveys. This suite includes the largest cosmological simulation ever run to the present time so it can simulate redshift surveys encompassing local volumes near redshift z=0 out to very distant sources at high redshift.

It was a very interesting talk which I thought I would mention here because of one thought that struck me, which is how much the field of computational cosmology has moved on since I started in the field in 1985, almost forty years ago. Not for the first time, it was a seminar that made me feel very old. I’ve been a spectator as far as this is concerned, of course, because I don’t do massive simulation work. Nevertheless these calculations have had a huge impact in the field, and play an important role in, for example, the Euclid mission. They are used both for planning survey strategies and for analyzing the result data.

Take a look at these two pictures, which I’ve chosen to illustrate the progress there has been in the field.

The simulation on the left shows the state-of-the-art when I started my PhD DPhil in 1985 from the classic “DEFW” paper by Davis Efstathiou, Frenk & White; the one on the right I took from Mathieu’s Twitter account. These do no simulate the same volume so the scale looks different, but the morphology of the cosmic web looks similar.

The most obvious change over the years has been the ability to generate colour graphics. The standard cosmological model has also evolved: the one on the right shows a model universe dominated by Cold Dark Matter with no dark energy, while the one on the right is the modern variant known as ΛCDM. The one on the left also is gravitational-only, i.e. no hydrodynamic effects arising from baryonic material., just the effect of the cold dark matter. The simulation on the right includes extensive modelling of baryonic physics. The largest gravity-only simulations that I’m aware of is the Euclid flagship simulation which produces mock galaxy catalogues like this:

The thing that struck me as an oldie, however, is the sheer scale of modern simulations. The DEFW simulations were done by moving N=323 particles around in a box in response to their mutual gravitational interactions. That’s just 32768 particles. The simulations Mathieu talked about involve N=50403 = 125,300,240,064 particles. That’s a factor of almost 4 million bigger. The Flagship simulations are about 16 times bigger than that, with about 2 trillion particles. Impressive! Moore’s Law is a wonderful thing…

Maynooth University Library Cat Update

Posted in Maynooth with tags on March 22, 2023 by telescoper

A few people have asked me whether Maynooth University Library Cat is OK, specifically whether he has recovered from the recent events that led to the temporary unavailability of his regular home. I chatted to one of the security guards on Monday when he was tending to the Cat’s box and he said that our feline friend had disappeared for a couple of days over the St Patrick’s holiday weekend but eventually returned home in the early hours on Sunday. I think that’s probably true of quite a number of humans around here too.

Anyway, it being a springlike morning, I found His Nibs on post so I took a couple of snaps of him looking rather statuesque. I couldn’t persuade him to open his eyes for the pics, probably because he was facing the sunlight, but he did so as soon as I put the camera away. He seems in rude health and no doubt enjoying the return of the students after the Study Break. He is also, as you can see, well stocked with supplies…

How do we make accessible research papers a reality?

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , on March 21, 2023 by telescoper

I wanted to advertise an event – an accessibility forum – organized by arXiv that looks interesting to anyone interested in open access publishing understood in the widest possible sense. It’s advertised as a practical forum, free for all:

Hosted by arXiv, this half-day online forum will center the experiences of academic researchers with disabilities who face barriers to accessing and reading papers. The forum will be useful for people across the academic authoring and publishing ecosystem who are committed to making accessible research papers a reality. Together, we can chart a path towards fully accessible research papers, and leave with practical next steps for our own organizations.

It’s on April 17th, from 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time (USA), which is 6pm to 10pm Dublin Time. You can find more details including information on how to register, here.

We usually focus on open access publishing in terms of the costs involved, but there is much more we can do in other respects to make scientific research as accessible as possible to as wide a community as possible. Having said that, this announcement did inspire me to go off

When I saw the word “ecosystem” in the description above, it reminded me of a brief discussion I had recently with a colleague who asked what I hoped to achieve with the Open Journal of Astrophysics (other than “world domination”). My answer was that I just wanted to show that there is a practical way to bypass the enormous expense of the traditional journal industry. Instead of just sitting around complaining about the state of things I wanted to demonstrate that it doesn’t have to be the way it is. The way the number of submissions to OJAp is increasing, it seems more and more people are becoming convinced.

It seems to me that the switch from subscription charges to the dreaded Article Processing Charge has help generate momentum in this direction, by making it even more explicit that the current arrangements are unsustainable. Previously the profits of the big publishers were hidden in library budgets. Now they are hitting researchers and their grants directly, as authors now have to pay, and people who previously hadn’t thought much about the absurdity of it all are now realizing what a racket academic publishing really is.

Increasing numbers of researchers think that the current ecosystem is doomed. I am convinced that it will die a natural death soon enough. But a question I am often asked is what will replace it? I think the answer to that is very clear: a worldwide network of institutional and/or subject-based repositories that share research literature freely for the common good. Universities and research centres should simply bypass the grotesque parasite that is the publishing industry. Indeed, I would be in favour of hastening the demise of the Academic Journal Racket by having institutions make it a disciplinary offence for any researcher to pay an APC.

We’re lucky in physics and astronomy because arXiv has already done the hard work for us. Indeed, it is now a fact universally acknowledged that every research paper worth reading in these disciplines can be found on arXiv. Old-style journals are no longer necessary. It is great that arXiv is being joined by similar ventures in other fields, such as BiorXiv and EarthArxiv. I’m sure many more will follow. What is needed is a global effort to link these repositories to each other and to peer review mechanisms. One way is through overlays as demonstrated by the Open Journal of Astrophysics, there being no reason why the idea can’t be extended beyond arXiv. Other routes are possible, of course, and I would love to see different models developed. I think the next few years are going to be very exciting.

The Vernal Equinox 2023

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 20, 2023 by telescoper

The Vernal Equinox, or Spring Equinox, (in the Northern hemisphere) takes place on Monday 20th March 2023, at 21.24 UTC (which is this evening at 9.24pm local Irish Time). I’m posting this 12 hours in advance of the big event to give you plenty of notice.

Many people regard the Vernal Equinox as the first day of spring; of course in the Southern hemisphere this is the Autumnal Equinox. The date of the Vernal Equinox is usually given as 21st March, but in fact it has only been on 21st March twice this century so far (2003 and 2007); it was on 20th March in 2008, has been on 20th March every spring from then until now, and will be until 2044 (when it will be on March 19th). This year, however, the Sun will already have set in Ireland before the Equinox, so sunrise tomorrow 21st March could reasonably be taken to be the first dawn of Spring.

People sometimes ask me how one can define the `equinox’ so precisely when surely it just refers to a day on which day and night are of equal length, implying that it’s a day not a specific time?

The answer is that the equinox is defined by a specific event, the event in question being when the plane defined by Earth’s equator passes through the centre of the Sun’s disk (or, if you prefer, when the centre of the Sun passes through the plane defined by Earth’s equator). Day and night are not necessarily exactly equal on the equinox, but they’re the closest they get. From now until the Autumnal Equinox, days in the Northern hemisphere will be longer than nights, and they’ll get longer until the Summer Solstice before beginning to shorten again.

Loughcrew (County Meath), near Newgrange, an ancient burial site and a traditional place to observe the sunrise at the Equinox

There’s usually a lot of neo-Pagan nonsense going around at the Solstices and Equinoxes, which reminded me of the following clipping related to an even more significant astronomical event, a total eclipse. I found it in The Times, in 1999, just before the total eclipse that was visible from parts of the United Kingdom on August 11th of that year. It was a feature about the concerns raised by certain residents of Cornwall about the possible effects of the sudden influx of visitors on the local community. Here is a scan  of a big chunk of the story, which you probably can’t read…

.and here is a blow-up of the section shown in the red box, which places cosmologists such as myself in rather strange company:

In protest, I wrote a letter to the The Times saying that, as a cosmologist, I thought this piece was very insulting … to Druids. They didn’t publish it.

Over the Break

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth on March 19, 2023 by telescoper

After last week’s study break, the St Patrick’s Day holiday, and all the excitement of Ireland’s Grand Slam, I woke up this morning with a shudder at the realization that I have to start teaching again next week and I had a lot to do to prepare. As a consequence, I’ve been busy all afternoon getting lectures and coursework ready, as well as writing examination papers, the deadline for which is tomorrow. These deadlines seem to happen earlier every year!

Among the things I had to do last week was make a trip to the rheumatology clinic where I have steroid injections in my knees for arthritis. It’s not a pleasant procedure, but I have been struggling for the last few weeks and was glad when my appointment came up. It’s not really painful, but the lack of mobility does get me down a bit. For one thing, I suspended my Friday concert-going. For another, a couple of weeks ago, I had to kneel down in the computer lab to fix a cable and could hardly get up again!

It usually takes just a day or two after the jabs to feel some improvement, and so it is this time. I’m moving a lot more freely now, which is a relief, and this should last for 9 months or so.

Anyway, we now have almost three weeks of teaching before another break. I say almost three weeks because Good Friday is a holiday here, as is the following week. I hope to be able to get through my remaining lectures on Computational Physics before then so all that will remain of that module will be labs and project work for the students. And, of course, marking…

The draft exam timetable has been issued, and it looks like I have yet another Saturday paper. Ho hum. Still, after the end of May, I can hopefully start thinking ahead for what is coming over the summer and next academic year…

The Grand Slam

Posted in Rugby with tags , , , , on March 18, 2023 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post to mark the occasion of the end of the 2023 Six Nations competition, Ireland’s victory over England in Dublin this evening making it a triumphant Grand Slam for the men in green. It wasn’t a great game, to be honest. I think the weight of expectation on the Irish players got to them a bit in the first half, and they made too many handling errors. Ireland also missed a couple of key players after the bruising game against Scotland last week. I half-wondered whether they might fall at the last fence. England couldn’t possibly have played as badly as they did against France last weekend, when they lost 53-10. I dread to think what the mood would have been like around town if Ireland hadn’t won.

In the end, though it was a relatively comfortable victory, with England’s only try, coming very late, was little more than a consolation and was quickly followed by a reply at the other end. In the closing stages The Fields of Athenry was ringing out around the stadium at Lansdowne Road, a celebration only marred by Johnny Sexton having to go off injured in his last-ever Six Nations match. What a career he has had!

Congratulations to Ireland on a magnificent achievement, thoroughly well deserved. This is an excellent team. Bring on the World Cup! (Though with home advantage, the excellent French side who came second in this year’s Six Nations, will be hard to beat.)

I remember Ireland doing the Grand Slam in 2009 by winning their last game against Wales in Cardiff. Judging by the celebrations after that, Dublin will be buzzing tonight, with relief as well as joy!

R.I.P. Tony Coe (1934-2023)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on March 18, 2023 by telescoper

It’s a very sad coincidence that just the day after I had reason to blog about the death of Wally Fawkes, I have to mention the death of another superb jazz musician also associated with the clarinet, Tony Coe, who has passed away at the age of 88. In a prolific career and leader and sideman, Tony Coe also played with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band (from 1957-61) but he is best known for his work in more modern forms of jazz. He was known for the virtuosity and originality of his style, not only on clarinet but on tenor, alto and soprano saxophone. I read yesterday that he was also the first music teacher of Tim Garland who, on his Facebook page, mentions that he found Coe’s tenor playing rather reminiscent of that of the great Paul Gonsalves, which I’d never thought of before but is true.

My first encounter with Tony Coe was on an album I bought round about 1981 called The Crompton Suite by the Stan Tracey Sextet. It’s a rare find on vinyl these days but I still have my copy:

I haven’t heard this for ages because I no longer have a turntable and as far as I’m aware it hasn’t been re-released on any digital format, but I remember it very well and would have picked a track from this album as a tribute if it were on YouTube but instead here’s a lovely recording he made just a couple of years ago with John Horler on piano, the title track of the very nice album Dancing in the Dark:

R.I.P. Tony Coe (1934-2023)